In one scenario, my boyfriend and I go to grab a coffee at Starbucks. He puts in our order while I grab the napkins and sugar. Suddenly, a man begins shouting at the top of his lungs — there's a bomb strapped to his torso. My boyfriend sprints toward me as the bomb goes off. I open my eyes to see his arms wrapped around me. He smiles because he knows I'm safe. I smile back and caress his head. Then, another explosion. We both know he has only seconds left. I tell him how much I love him.
Just to be clear: this did not happen. I don't want this to ever happen — to me, my boyfriend, or anyone else. And yet, this hypothetical scene is just one of the many anxiety-fueled scenarios about my boyfriend's death that my mind conjures up on a regular basis They're nothing more than sick daydreams, products of my often-gross imagination; the reality is that my significant other is not in grave danger, nor am I suffering the post-traumatic stress of a recent loss. Yet, these irrational thoughts are so vivid that I find myself tearing up over them midday in my office cubicle.
This manifestation of anxiety has become a problem just one year into our relationship. And while I'm used to my anxiety pulling my mind in different directions, this particular rabbit hole — where I imagine scenarios in which my boyfriend might die — has become a morbid, nonsensical place that I no longer wish to explore.
How did I end up here? Our first date was a typical and solid. We met at a bar where we could actually hear one another, kept ourselves to a two-cocktail limit, and maintained fluid conversation for close to four hours. On our second date, he barely touched his dinner. And although he continued to ask me out, he seemed rather quiet and reserved whenever we’d meet. To make his courtship even more questionable, our dates would be peppered with his frequent trips to the bathroom.
My mind jumped to a conclusion on its own: He must have a bowel issue. I accepted it. I thought to myself, "Well, alright. I can handle it." Finding him after five years of singledom in New York City felt, to me, like encountering the last living male on Earth. Plus, he had warm green eyes and an award-winning smile. (Seriously. He won the title in high school.) And if those eyes and that smile came with a constant stream of uncontrollable diarrhea, I was willing to accept it.
Eventually, he admitted that his reluctant behavior and many trips to the bathroom were actually due to nausea. He liked me so much that it triggered his own anxiety (think Stan and Wendy from South Park). On the day he told me this endearingly disgusting truth, he showed up to our date in a cold sweat. He looked vulnerable. He looked defeated. He looked like he was four seconds away from projectile vomiting. Then, he told me, "If you want to run away, I completely understand." I think that's when I started to fall in love with him.
From that day forward, we had a seamless relationship. But it seemed as if our levels of anxiety had flipped. While he was becoming comfortable and cool as a once-nauseated cucumber, I was going into an internal tale spin. My mind's innocent (albeit obnoxious) way of jumping to anxious conclusions had somehow turned into outlandish stories of his demise.
In my brain, he's been gun downed during a home invasion after leaving his apartment door unlocked. He's been accidentally stabbed, after yours truly tripped in the kitchen while holding a knife. My personal favorite is when I contemplated his move to Queens, across New York City from my home in Manhattan. I wondered what our plan would be for a citywide emergency. Should I go to him, since Manhattan will be obviously fucked? Should we establish a meeting point? Keep in mind, the citywide emergency that I envisioned wasn't a natural disaster or an act of war. It was the inevitable zombie apocalypse. It's normal to worry about the safety of the people you care about, of course. But this went far beyond worrying, and far beyond normal.
These horrible fantasies finally came to a head during our one-year anniversary dinner. Midway into our celebration, my boyfriend lost steam and refused to touch his moules frites. We spent the rest of the evening with Netflix in bed and a doggy bag in the fridge. When I looked at him, he wore the same look of nausea and defeat that he sported not so long ago. Except this time, it wasn't because of his anxiety. It was due to some unknown health issue — a seemingly valid reason for me to worry. He had set up an appointment with a gastroenterologist, but while we waited to hear back from the doctor, my mind went to work.
Contrary to what my imagination might have you think, I know that I'm a rational person. I know that the average life expectancy in the United States is 78 years old and that I shouldn’t worry about my twenty-something boyfriend. However, logic and anxiety are not mutually exclusive. After taking the subway for more than 13 years, I still occasionally wonder, when my my train stalls, if we are delayed because of hijackers. Every now and then, when my mom takes more than a day to call me back, I lightly contemplate whether or not I should dial 911. I know these frantic thoughts are ridiculous, so my logic keeps them at bay and reels me back in. But, when it comes to my newfound beau, these thoughts of tragedy seem to be boiling over as I constantly worry about him dying on me. How can I expect to maintain my relationship and sanity if I’m battling with this constant death anxiety?
Of course, I'm not the first person to spend time obsessing over horrible things that theoretically could (but probably won't) happen. And not all people believe that this is a wholly negative habit. Nietzsche argued that Greek tragedies were a beneficial illusion for audiences and a way for them to self-affirm their own suffering. Put simply, he believed they were cathartic.
Art alone can re-direct those repulsive thoughts about the terrible or absurd nature of existence into representations with which man can live...
I'm not saying that my many daydreams of boyfriend's many deaths are a form of art (that would be very Kanye of me). Rather, I believe Nietzsche's perspective can help justify my crazy.
Clearly, I love this man. I've waited patiently to find him, and now that I have, I'm waiting patiently for all of it to end. But, when all goes well in a relationship, the only other means to an end is death. So, my mind processes this anxiety and copes with it by contriving dramatic and vivid death scenes. In doing so, I can come close to making peace with the most tragic outcome of my relationship without — knock on wood — ever experiencing it. I am, in fact, staging my own Greek tragedy.
A few weeks later, my boyfriend heard back from his doctor: lactose intolerance. It's a basic diagnosis that pales in comparison to my fears. I feel as silly as I do relieved.
And yet, I'm not sure if the lesson is as simple as me needing to chill the fuck out. Sure, my mind has a colorful way of coping with love-struck angst. However, the secret to controlling this catharsis isn't battling it, but understanding it. These iterations of his death aren't just some rabbit hole of anxiety. They're theatrical tragedies that I can create and watch when I so please, and they help me deal with the terror and the worry that comes with loving another human being very, very much.
Even now, I can't help but think of him falling down an elevator shaft.